What we choose to believe and the choices we make are, by and large, controlled by our subconscious, based on the stories we tell ourselves and those that we’ve been told by our parents, our friends and those we respect and admire. These, along with our life experiences, the autobiographical information and memories we store about ourselves, and many other factors are all integrated into a whole in our heads.
There is often no rational reason why we choose to believe some things; it’s a blend of so many factors. This is why in some respects debates around politics and, topically, Brexit are circular and fruitless, and we’d be better off finding our common ground and moving forward from there.
Rationalist thinking that beliefs are somehow malleable when subjected to rational scrutiny is not helpful. We have to accept that the choices we make are often arbitrary and nonsensical, and trying to put them into words is more often than not, incredibly difficult.
Our beliefs run deep, and it takes a long time for anyone to change their minds on deeply held beliefs. I would argue that Damascene conversions are more likely people finally letting go of old viewpoints, where their new ones were either a bit scary for them, or they just didn’t realised they’d moved on, and then something has given them the excuse to drop the old beliefs – a shift in perspective of the group around them or a move to a new group of friends/colleagues etc.
This is why a second Brexit referendum is pointless. Very few people will have changed their minds. If anything, I think a lot of people felt bullied into voting to remain, and have since seen that, while there were blatant lies on both sides of the argument, the lies on the remain side were malicious and designed to put fear into people. Not a good way to build trust.
Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is a hard premise to live to, but as a libertarian I truly believe this to be the core of society and getting along. We will never agree on everything – how dull would life be if we did? But to rationalise and dig your heels in and point fingers on a wave of Noradrenaline and say, “You’re wrong!” is to miss out on the magic of life.1